Monday, June 20, 2005

Worlds Afire

Janeczko, Paul. 2004. WORLDS AFIRE. Cambridge, MA: Candlewick Press. ISBN 0763622354. [Suggested Grade Levels 6-12]

In a haunting collection of poems, Janeczko tells the disturbing story of the Hartford Circus Fire where 167 people died and over 500 more were injured when the big top tent inexplicably caught fire. The book is divided into three parts which provides for a sense of continuity. The first section includes poems representing the viewpoints of people before the fire began. There is an air of anticipation and excitement as the circus prepares for its performance. However, some feel an uneasy sense of foreboding. David Hancock, a seatman says: “But I knew/ something bad would happen/ when we pulled into the siding/ so late we had blow the evening show. Everybody knows blowing a show’s/ bad luck.” The last words of a young girl as she watches her friends leave for the circus are: “Don’t go.” The second section is full of horror and desperation as children are separated from their parents, and circus people are helpless to stop the chaos. The voices here are especially poignant. A mother who perished along with her daughter says: “Then the fire started. I never doubted we’d get out/ all of us and have a story to tell Roy. Now/he’ll have to hear about us/ from strangers.” Finally, the third section depicts the aftermath. The voices of the police and other rescue workers, the survivors and spectators, all have a heartbreaking story to tell. This is obvious in the evocative words of Sam Tuttle, a camera operator: “I watched it once. Enough to sicken me again. But when I reversed the film/ killing smoke vanished/ flames flickered to nothing/ people backed out of the big top and boys screeched with joy/ jabbered in excitement/ girls skipped and twirled in their summer dresses/ mothers smiled to see their children joyous/ all in silence, none knowing/ they would be this happy/ for the last time/ in their lives.” Although an unlikely subject for a prose poem story, this moving book will leave a haunting impression for a long time to come.

Readers may wish to find books about other devastating fires and compare the events that led up to them and how they might have been prevented. Readers might also look for other examples of poems depicting tragedies to study how words and styles are used.

Other books about the circus fire and other disastrous fires.
Murphy, Jim. THE GREAT FIRE. ISBN 0590472674
O’Nan, Stewart. THE CIRCUS FIRE. ISBN 0385496850

By Ellen Reed

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